Professional Spotlight: Nick Girard (Part 2)

In part 1 of this interview, which you can access here, Nick Girard talked about his experiences with a cappella recording, mixing, and music in general. In part 2, he talks about his experiences as a performer with the prominent vocal bands Overboard and The House Jacks.

TOPIC: OVERBOARD

Acatribe: Over the past few years, Overboard can be safely described as “ambitious” with projects such as “Help!” and Free Track Tuesdays [which are available for listening on the Overboard YouTube channel here]. What did you guys hope to accomplish with each of these very original and ambitious plans? Did the entire group agree with the scope and direction of these projects?

Nick Girard: Since Overboard started as a summer street performing group, we have always tried to maintain a healthy balance between art and commerce.  Our first audiences were tourists and 50-year-old New Englanders who, by and large, were expecting a cappella to sound like their college glee club or like Frankie Valli.  So, at times, we’ve had to sing songs that all members may not have been wholly passionate about, but that allowed us to earn money.

This may be an old man’s tangent, but I believe it strongly: Growing groups sometimes need to suck it up and sing shitty songs. Shitty songs pay bills. Overboard didn’t become financially viable singing our dissonant version of “Toxic” or whatever Rihanna song is in heavy rotation. Music snobs won’t find you if you can’t get gigs and kids don’t pay for music. 

That means that in the early years, and sometimes even still today, we’ve made easy money singing “In the Still of the Night” and “Stand By Me.”  And if that makes us sellouts, so be it.  But we’re sellouts with a full sound system, six albums which are fully paid-for, a ton of recording gear, and music careers that now take us all over the country.  Every crappy gig we did, every High School Musical 2 song we covered for a five-year-old’s birthday party, every Temptations song covered for a sixty-five-year-old’s retirement party paid for something we needed to move forward.  Aside from putting in a few hundred dollars ourselves here or there in the early years, we’ve always paid for everything with money we earned before we bought the item in question.  I can look at our gear and our albums and know exactly which gigs bought what.  Funding for albums (soup to nuts, if you will) is always completely secured before we break ground.  We’ve sacrificed a great deal of our individual cuts in order to grow the group; we’ve never gotten loans, used credit cards, or done a Kickstarter [campaign].  And, sometimes that meant having to arrange the Notre Dame fight song for a graduation party or “Into the Mystic” for an anniversary dinner and I was happy to do it.  Even serious actors do CGI-laden blockbusters.

Does this mean I don’t have artistic integrity?  Some people say I don’t (but only if they think I can’t hear them).  And I don’t care.  When I started Overboard, I was a carpenter.  I didn’t give a shit about artistic integrity, I just didn’t want to be a carpenter forever.  And I can promise you, singing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” at a pre-school is way better than planting pine trees in December or roofing a house in August.

The projects you’re asking about allowed us, more or less, to grow beyond singing for our supper.  With our holiday album, Tidings, and certainly later with Help!, we were trying to strike the balance between creating songs in styles our audience could relate to, but also to develop ourselves more as artists.  Both projects were marketable- people understand what you mean when you say “holiday album” or “Beatles tribute album”- but also allowed us to develop as arrangers, singers, and performers.  Free Track Tuesday also allowed us to add production to our marketable skills.

That’s a roundabout way of answering both questions.  The goal of these projects was to push us towards music careers.  And yes, at times my personal goals and my goals for Overboard were not consistent with other members’ artistic visions.  Or, more often, with their faith that the amount of work required to do the projects well would be met with commensurate rewards down the line.  I try very hard to make sure that if a member loses one battle, they win another; it doesn’t always work out that way, but I make the effort.  And some people don’t like me.  And I’m okay with that. 

Between the Free Track Tuesday series and the albums you guys have put out, the group has recorded a pretty wide variety of musical styles.  Do you feel that Overboard has a style of its own, something distinctive or is the group’s style reflected by its versatility?

We’ve always maintained an eclectic repertoire since doing so dramatically increases our gigging opportunities (see above!).  Our approach to arranging binds the material together and helps contribute a cohesion to our “sound.”  More specifically, perhaps the most definitive thing about Overboard is our song reinvention, a trait we’re looking to develop further in the coming months.  Otherwise, we just try to get by on our charming good looks and exuberant personalities.  😉

I believe you are the only original member (being a founder) of the group still involved. Considering you are a small band with very specific sonic demands, how difficult is the transition for you musically when a group member leaves and somebody new comes in?

You are correct, I am the only remaining original member.  Scott joined the group about nine months in, well before we embarked on any of our “definitive” projects, so he very much feels like an original member to me. 

Replacing members is always difficult. No two singers are alike and a lot of the time the guy leaving is a good friend and the new guy is a total stranger.  Everything needs to change when someone new comes in.  And, depending on what role(s) they serve, those changes can be subtle or drastic.  But yes, if you could take a cross-section of the group’s history and listen to it, you would notice DRASTIC changes in style…and tuning.

With “Help!” you used not only the most popular Beatles songs, but also a few lesser-known (or deeper) Beatles tunes to tell a story.  Were you familiar with some of these more obscure tracks already, or did you end up listening to the entire Beatles catalog in order to piece together the tracklist/story?

It’s kind of embarrassing to admit, but before working on “Help!” I didn’t know nearly as much about the Beatles as I should have.  After we finished up with “Tidings,” my girlfriend, who is an avid Beatles fan and does a lot of Overboard’s behind-the-scenes work with scheduling, accounting, etc., suggested we do a concept album based around the Beatles catalog.  So, one night in December 2008, she and I sat down, combed through song after song and, over the course of a few hours, we built a story around these forty-something songs.  With the exception of one or two songs and a couple of transitions, that draft is what you hear on the final recording.  On my own, I never could have come up with some of the ideas she did, not just because I didn’t know the source material as well as she does, but also because she’s so much more willing to take risks than I am.  It’s my nature to say “No, that can’t be done”  and hers to be like “Cool, see you in an hour. Make it good.” “Hello, Goodbye,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” and “Good Night” are probably the best examples of the product of our collaboration, and they’re some of the most talked-about tracks on the album, as well as some of my personal favorites.

Perhaps the one notable absence in Overboard’s repertoire are original songs.  Are there any plans for Overboard to develop some original tunes?

The current answer is yes.  Ask me again tomorrow, and that may change.  I’ve gone back and forth about this for years. 

TOPIC- THE HOUSE JACKS

A staple of any live House Jacks show is the improvised section where the group takes requests from the audience and mashes a bunch of them together.  I have 2 questions about this practice: 1) What was it like the first time you had to do that onstage? and 2) I’ve seen the group many times over the years, and I’ve seen very few total flops on a request. Have you had any experience yet where the group couldn’t pull of a requested song?

Requests are always terrifying and my first time was no exception.  We were in Germany.  It was the first time I’d ever performed with The House Jacks or to a foreign audience and I quickly realized that I don’t know nearly enough Earth, Wind, and Fire tunes to satiate the average House Jacks fan.  I am one of the shyest people you’ll ever meet (don’t believe me? try to get your hands on an old video of me performing with the Top Cats… on second thought, please don’t!).  It takes everything I have to get out there and be spontaneous and funny and to just generally make an ass of myself.

I guess it’s kind of like Saturday Night Live skits or old Carol Burnett shows; the trainwrecks,  when everybody looks confused and starts laughing, are sometimes the most memorable moments.  It helps that the guys are pros.  Deke is one of the fastest people you’ll ever get to meet, musically, comically, and just generally.  He’ll just rattle off a retort before you even process the impetus.  Austin and Troy are both insanely versatile performers with incredible instincts and killer stage presences.  They can do great impersonations, but also make songs their own.  John has had a successful solo act in Austin for years, so he’s super comfortable onstage.  It’s hard to flop when you’re working with such a great group of musicians.  When it does happen, we laugh it off and try to do better with the next one.  Not much more you can do than that.

In the original announcement that you and John Pointer were joining The House Jacks, there was language indicating that you would be alternating between singing tenor and vocal percussion with the group.  Has that been the case, or have you settled into more of a defined role?

Yup, that’s very much been the case.  I’m happy to be the utility guy, so I sing bass, tenor, and do VP.  John’s VP style is very different than mine- he’s more of a beatboxer, and I’m more of a vocal percussionist- so we are both utilized in different ways, which basically amounts to us splitting the set 50/50.  I was a singer though most of my college and Overboard, so it’s been awesome to have some time to focus on expanding my VP skills.  That said, living up to The House Jacks’ lineage of percussionists (Andrew Chaikin, Wes Carroll, Jake Moulton) is unbelievably intimidating, so most days I just feel bad about myself and obsessively practice, much to the annoyance of everyone around me.

[Editor’s note: you can see a clip of the 2 of them trading off VP right here – John is on the left, Nick on the right]

Deke (Sharon) recently wrote a blog post for CASA.org explaining that part of  (if not all of) the reason The House Jacks has been around as a group for 20 years is that it is run like a “communist collective.”  Do you think this approach works? Do you find that the group’s approach and structure are similar to how Overboard works internally, or are there significant differences?

I’ve thought about this a lot over the past year since meeting Deke.  And I’ve come to the conclusion that our approaches are similar, but different.  The best way I can explain it is to liken it to parenting styles.  Deke/Austin and I are the parents of our respective groups.  My child, “Overboard,” is a six-year-old with certain aspirations, but with the natural limitations of being a kid still figuring out what kind of person it wants to be.  Deke and Austin’s child, “The House Jacks,” is a twenty-one-year-old with character and accomplishments, already possessing a pretty clear vision of who it is in the world.  Both benefit from parenting, but the characteristics of that parenting vary dramatically in accordance with the situation in question.

I will say, learning more about The House Jacks’ history, its struggles and growing pains, has made me feel much, much better about Overboard.  I spent years thinking, perhaps arrogantly so, that our problems were unique and beating myself up that they were all my fault.  But, the more I get to know people in established pro groups, the more I realize that the drama Overboard has faced over the years is pretty typical.  I may be crazy, but at least I’m not alone.

Any exciting news, projects, or opportunities involving Overboard or The House Jacks that you’d like to plug?

In the near future, I’ll be on the road a ton with both groups.  Overboard has significantly expanded our national touring dates, and we’ve got a few international mini-tours hopefully being finalized in the next couple of months.  The House Jacks will be headed to Sri Lanka next month, Rio in September, and then back to Germany for our annual tour in November.  We’ve got a few really exciting opportunities coming up in Asia over the next year or so as well.  Beyond touring, both groups are changing up our stage shows, looking into new album projects, and expanding our outreach projects.

TOPIC: (VERY) PERSONAL

I know that organ donation is an important topic for you and I was wondering, if you don’t mind sharing, why that’s the case?

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to speak about this.  When I was 22, my father was diagnosed with advanced liver failure.  Two months later, he was lucky enough to receive a full liver transplant from a car crash victim.  In the years since, his health has been pretty unpredictable at times, but the transplant unquestionably saved his life.  Not everyone is that lucky.  In the United States alone, it’s estimated that 7,000 people die annually while waiting for an organ.  Experts believe that heightened awareness about organ donation will go far in solving this crisis.  I know that organ donation is a very personal issue, and I by no means want to preach to people about it.  However, for those of your readers who are organ donors, they can help spread awareness about organ donation.  Facebook, for example, now allows you to include your organ donation status on your timeline.  It may seem like a small gesture, but if even a fraction of Facebook’s 900 million users join the conversation about organ donation, we can help people like my dad get the care they need.

Nick, I know I speak for many of my readers when I say thank you so much for taking the time to offer such extensive and candid answers.  It is great for the community anytime we can engage in honest discussion about what groups are doing and how they work (or don’t).  I wish you the best of luck with both groups and the production company, as well as any and all other creative projects you are working on.

For readers interested in checking out how to register as an organ donor, please start here. In many states, including my home state of New York, you can register when you renew your driver’s license or register to vote, in addition to other places. I am proud to be an organ donor, and I would add that blood donations are also dangerously low in many states, and they require no formal registration other than walking into a local blood donation bank or drive, but you can learn more about that by clicking here.

You can find Overboard on the web here and here.

You can find The House Jacks on the web here.

Professional Spotlight: Nick Girard of Overboard, The House Jacks, and Overboard Productions (Part 1)

This Spotlight series was initially created to focus on the important but often under-appreciated  members of the a cappella community: the producers.  However, many producers in this field are also performers. This week’s spotlight features someone who is not only a producer, he is a top-notch arranger and he performs in not one, but two vocal bands: one on each coast.
ANY CHARACTER HERE
Nick Girard founded Boston’s Overboard in 2006, and in the 6 years since then the group has produced 6 albums and 52- that’s right, 52!- free tracks for download as part of the groundbreaking Free Track Tuesday series. The group has won the Boston Regional of the Harmony Sweepstakes competition, won and been nominated for many Contemporary A Cappella Recording Awards (CARAs) in categories as diverse as Best Religious Song, Best Holiday Album/Song, Best Jazz Song, Best Hip Hop/R&B song, and Best Pop/Rock Album, and many ACAs (A cappella Community Awards) as well. In addition to recording their own tracks, Nick and the group formed Overboard Productions, which has recorded, edited, or mixed numerous professional and collegiate groups and Nick himself has arranged, recorded, and mixed for the most recent season (S3) of The Sing Off. In late 2011, he joined The House Jacks, longtime vocal rock band based in the San Francisco area, and immediately went out on their tour to Germany and Austria.
ANY CHARACTER HERE
He currently trades time and performances between both groups and coasts, and works with Overboard Productions primarily in the Boston area. Please check out the Overboard (band and production) website here and the House Jacks website here.
ANY CHARACTER HERE
Nick- thank you so much for taking the time out of what seems to be an impossibly busy schedule to do this interview. I’d love for you to share a few insights as someone whose professional life seems to be saturated with producing, arranging, and singing a cappella music.
ANY CHARACTER HERE
TOPIC- STUDIO

I get the sense that you started out in the recording arena as a way of getting your own group’s tracks and albums done, and then eventually decided to expand and offer the same services to other groups. Was sound reinforcement and production something that interested you back when you were in college, or did it develop more as a result of the work you put into Overboard’s albums?
ANY CHARACTER HERE
In 7th grade, my junior high music teacher lent me a Fostex X-15 4-track tape recorder to play around with, so I guess you could say that’s where it all began.  Then, in high school, I played in a few bands and we spent a bunch of time in the studio working on projects, as well as fighting the live sound battle, so a lot of my interest developed at a young age.
ANY CHARACTER HERE
By the time Overboard started, I’d picked up a few skills here and there, but not nearly enough to do anything alone.  They say necessity is the mother of invention and that couldn’t be more true here.  We recorded our first album, Shipwrecked, in my living room with GarageBand after having known each other for two weeks.  It was a bit of a disaster, but it gave us something to sell while performing on the streets, which was our ultimate goal.  About a year later, we were in the middle of recording our first studio album, Stranded, when our budget began to run out.  So, I borrowed an Mbox from my brother and edited the album in Pro Tools using an Auto-Tune demo plug-in.
 
After Stranded, we worked with Ed Boyer for our holiday album, Tidings, and I obsessively watched everything he did.  When it came time to record our concept album, Help!, budget was a huge concern.  We knew we wanted tons of tracks and layers and that we’d be improvising a bunch of the more complicated tracks, particularly “Good Night” and “Get Back,” so it would have been insanely expensive to have Ed track it from start to finish.  Instead, he came up for a weekend, tracked percussion and some overdubs on “Sgt. Pepper’s” and “Good Day Sunshine” and we laboriously tracked the rest throughout that summer.
 
Some guys from my college group, the University of Vermont Top Cats, heard Help!, liked what we’d done, and asked if I could work on an album for them.  It was their first album in 10 years and I’d never edited beyond Stranded or mixed anything myself, but thankfully they trusted me and I learned on the job.
 
Once that project was winding down, Overboard’s membership had changed and we wanted to do something interesting as a follow-up to Help!.  A few of the other guys had far more recording experience than I, and we thought that getting into production would be a good way to make some extra money to supplement our performing earnings.  To develop our skills and promote the new group, we decided to release a new track every week for a year- Free Track Tuesday.  We did the arranging, tracking, editing, mixing, and for most of them, the mastering.  Without question, some tracks were better than others, but all of them taught us something.  “FTT” was a great training ground and, within a couple of months, we began freelancing with other a cappella engineers, and then ultimately taking on our own clients.

Do you guys spend more time on tracking, editing, mixing, or live sound? Which stage of the process do you enjoy most?
ANY CHARACTER HERE
For the first year of Overboard Productions, other than our own Free Track Tuesday work, we spent most of our time tracking and editing for other engineers.  Then, in September 2011, we ran a Back to School Special- editing/mixing/mastering 12 tracks for $3,000.  From that initiative and from good old-fashioned word of mouth, we’ve gotten more and more mixing projects.  In addition to working on albums, a large part of our business this past year has also been arranging for collegiate and professional groups.
ANY CHARACTER HERE
Although it’s hard to pick a favorite part of the process, arranging is my first love and probably the thing I’m most passionate about.  Arranging, and music generally, allows me to communicate emotions when words fail me.
ANY CHARACTER HERE
At present, we don’t do any work with live sound outside of our own shows, but I’ll definitely never say never.  Additionally, we don’t currently master; most of our projects get mastered by Dave Sperandio of Diovoce.

I’m sure you get asked about this a lot, but the effects on Overboard’s version of “Hedwig’s Theme” from Harry Potter are pretty impressive. How long did it take you to get some of those instrumental effects, and was it largely a process of trial and error?
ANY CHARACTER HERE
“Hedwig’s Theme” was a big undertaking for us.  Lots of tracks and layers, lots of critical listening in order to pull parts from the original orchestral recording.  But, in the end, nearly everything you hear on the track is sung as-is, with the notable exception of the introduction.  The intro is a collection of whistles, sequenced in the same way drums are typically programmed.  Other than some reverb, the whistling has virtually no effects on it.  Most of what you hear has some EQ and compression for shaping, and that’s about it.  That track was really an exploration in sound production from the singer side of the mic, not the engineer side.  And in many ways it’s a testament to the remarkable (and totally under-appreciated) vocal talents of Alex Green and Jeff Eames.

On a related note, engineers are frequently learning new and different techniques for recording and mixing. Have you had any cool and unexpected tricks which might be interesting to those out there who dabble in Pro Tools or other recording software? [trade secrets need not be discussed]
ANY CHARACTER HERE
Other than an afternoon at Ed Boyer’s house before I began the Top Cats album, I’m largely self-taught.  Most of what I’ve learned has been through trial-and-error and the kindness of a cappella luminaries like Ed, Dio and Bill Hare who (thankfully) answer my emails and give me advice.  My own advice to anyone interested in working in music production is to start playing around with stuff– you never know what you’ll stumble upon.  Also, spend time trying to listen to why things sound the way they do, physically.  That’ll help you once you start sound designing.

Have you worked on any projects with Overboard Productions that did not involve a cappella music?
ANY CHARACTER HERE
I’ve personally done a fair amount of non-a cappella recording, but Overboard Productions hasn’t done much yet.  We’ve got a few projects coming up this summer that are either entirely instrumental or hybrids, so I’m really excited to explore that side of production.

What is your typical approach for recording VP, or does it depend on the client?
ANY CHARACTER HERE
It totally depends on the performer.  Everyone produces his/her sounds in a slightly different way, so the approach varies accordingly.  Close-mic, off-axis, plosives…all depends on what the end aesthetic will be and how the source sounds are created.

What single track have you worked on in the past 6 months or year that you are particularly proud of?
ANY CHARACTER HERE
I’m pretty self-critical, so a lot of the time when I listen to my own stuff, I only hear the things I wish I could do better, but here a few recent, albeit totally biased, examples.
ANY CHARACTER HERE
From an arrangement standpoint, there are a few I did for The Sing Off that I’m pretty proud of: “Good Feeling” with Flo Rida, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” with Sara Bareilles and Ben Folds, and “Carol of the Bells” for the University of Rochester YellowJackets come to mind. 
ANY CHARACTER HERE
From a production standpoint, we’ve been lucky enough to work with the University of St. Andrews Other Guys on a few of their singles and on their last album.  I edited and mixed their most recent single “St. Andrew’s Girls” (a spin-off of Katy Perry’s “California Gurls”) and was pretty pleased with how that turned out.

What a cappella track have you heard in the past 6 months or year that made you say “Wow, I wish I had a hand in that project?”
ANY CHARACTER HERE
I’ve been lucky enough to hear the evolution of the new Pentatonix EP, from the early mixes to the final product.  It’ll be released on June 26, and it’s outstanding.  I’ve always been a huge fan of Ed’s work, but he really outdid himself on this one. Moreover, you can really tell that the group, along with their arranger Ben Bram, took the time to hone each arrangement, each performance, each mix.  I appreciate that attention to detail, the treatment of an album as a piece of art rather than an item on a to-do list.

TOPIC- PERSONAL
ANY CHARACTER HERE
I noticed you play the guitar. Do you feel that instrumental knowledge or skill informs or influences your arranging style in any way?
ANY CHARACTER HERE
I feel strongly that it’s difficult to be a musician without being knowledgeable about music.  That doesn’t mean that you have to have a degree in music to be a musician (my degree is in math), but it does mean that in order to understand musical devices, specifically in an arranging context, you have to study how music works in a manner that resonates with you.  I didn’t really sing until college– all my music experience prior to that was instrumental as a guitarist, drummer, concert percussionist, and woodwind player– so coming from an instrumental background provided me with an understanding of the organization of music and why certain things work the way they do.  After college, I took a couple of music theory courses and developed a deeper understanding of musical function, which has helped enormously.

You were the primary organizer of The PickUps, the collection of festival attendees who perform, at two recent CASA festivals (BOSS and LAAF). Why did you choose to get involved in organizing these groups?
ANY CHARACTER HERE
I sang with the Single Singers at the 2012 London A Cappella Festival and was so moved by the experience of singing with a collection of musicians I had never met before.  Many of us didn’t even speak the same language, but as soon as we started singing, we were all in our common element.  It was a really cool collaboration and something that I thought would be an enjoyable addition to the domestic festivals– the opportunity for a cappella enthusiasts to share in an active musical experience while at the festivals.  After all, we’re all involved in the a cappella community because we share an appreciation for singing.

What first drew you into a cappella music?
ANY CHARACTER HERE
My college group used this audition slogan for years: “Chicks dig guys who can sing.”  The rest is history…Seriously, though, before ever seeing the group or knowing they existed, I overheard them rehearsing late one night in the music building. They were singing “It’s Probably Me” by Sting, featured in the opening scene of Lethal Weapon 3, and I was super-impressed to hear a “pop” song performed by a vocal group.  I auditioned for the group based solely on my assumption that they were, in fact, the group I had overheard that night…and the hope that their promise that girls would be impressed would prove true.

What is the best live a cappella show you’ve seen?
ANY CHARACTER HERE
The Swingle Singers.  Every time I see them, they blow my mind.  I also saw FORK for the first time this past January at the London A Cappella Festival and was so inspired by their musicality, humor, and the shape of their performance.
ANY CHARACTER HERE
Owing to the generous depth of his responses, which I (and I’m sure you) appreciate, Nick suggested we break this interview into two parts. The second part, featuring his responses to questions about his membership in Overboard and The House Jacks, is up now right here.